CINCINNATI — A Shawnee State University professor suing his employer for unlawful punishment tried to revive his case at the Sixth Circuit of Appeals Thursday.
Nicholas Meriwether, a humanities professor at SSU since 1996, claimed his punishment for not addressing a student by their preferred gender pronouns was in violation of religious and philosophical freedoms provided by the First and 14th Amendments.
“Here, University officials masquerade their mandated ideology as a mere matter of etiquette and civility,” reads the brief filed by Meriwether. “In reality, they are requiring Dr. Meriwether to say or avoid certain words to convey approval of their substantive view that sex is a matter of subjective self-perception rather than physiology, contrary to his beliefs.”
Arguing for Meriwether, Attorney John Bursch of Alliance Defending Freedom claimed past courts had wrongly concluded that his client had no free speech as faculty of a public university and his speech was not of public concern.
“If they (SSU) can tell a professor you can’t even discuss this on a syllabus, then of course he can’t bring this up any kind of meaningful way in a classroom discussion,” he said to the panel, comparing how a university, in his view, would not hush a coach from voicing their views on the Black Lives Matter movement. “He has been silenced and obviously on an issue of public importance.”
Attorneys Paul Kerridge and John Unikowsky represented SSU and the student respectively on the matter and fielded questions from the panel. Both said the use of a class syllabus by Meriwether to voice their view on the gender identity policy was inappropriate.
Judge Thapar formulated a hypothetical scenario where a Jewish professor had to refer to a student as “Mein Fuhrer,” the political title associated with Adolf Hitler. The example was not well received by the attornies, Kerridge saying “I think, in and of itself, that is objectively offensive.”
The instance dates back to January 2018, where a transgender student said she identified as a female and wished to be referred by those pronouns and titles. Meriwether refused that request, going against both the student and the university policy, as he saw it as a direct contradiction of his Christian faith.
“God created human beings as either male or female that this sex is fixed in each person from the moment of conception, and that it cannot be changed, regardless of an individual’s feelings or desires,” reads the suit, describing the professor’s stance on the human sexuality debate.
Not being accommodated for her request, the lawsuit alleges the student became visibly angry, saying “Then I guess this means I can call you an (expletive),” and promising to get Meriwether fired.
His way of a compromise, Meriwether decided to refer to the student by their first and last name. According to court documents that decision was first supported by SSU until the student said they did not approve.
Meriwether continues to teach at SSU, but has a formal letter on his employment file and warned of further punishment if he did not comply in the future.
SSU offered the following statement in light of the latest development in this case:
“We have maintained throughout this case that the facts show that every effort was made by Shawnee State to respect the rights of free speech and protect all individuals from discrimination, inside and outside of the classroom. We remain optimistic as we await the Court’s decision.”
Reach Patrick Keck (740)-353-3501 ext. 1931, by email at firstname.lastname@example.org, or on Twitter @pkeckreporter.
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